My friend Chris

I arrived back home Sept 19 to a whirlwind of activity: trying to find a new housemate by October 1, unpacking, cleaning, major yard work, seeing some old friends, and generally trying to land.  Then I decided to head to Massachusettes from Oct 13 to Oct 28 to see the fall colors.  I was in culture shock and not yet to face the changing reality of Silicon Valley.  Every time I come back it seems more crowded, densely packed, and stressful, and I feel less inclined to be here each time.  I was just about to board the plane in SF when I got a call saying that my stepmom had passed away.  Very sad news, and very confusing, as the last year or more of her life she changed markedly, becoming obsessed about my uncle’s well being and very different from the cultured, refined woman I’d known when she was with my father.  That loss was compounded a week later by the news that a good college friend Chris Cutler had committed suicide.  Chris was hands down one of the best biologists and ornithologists I’ve ever known, and probably that the world had as well.  What a loss for humanity, plants, and animals world-wide.  He was one of the few people I knew who had been to every continent, mostly as a biologist, and knowing that he was no longer padding around the globe helping endangered creatures caused a serious pang in my heart.  

The following is a letter I wrote Chris during Dia de los Muertos the year after he died.  I was sitting at a table with young kids eyeing the glitter bottles and glue sticks, all of whom who were writing letters to their beloved dead. I felt very peaceful to be amidst their number.

Dear C-squared, Though I haven’t seen you for a few years, you were always on my mind, and I saw you traveling far and wide, helping save sea turtles, doing mysterious things on Papa New Guinea, going to Antarctica, and taking lucky ecotourists to Africa, the Mediterranean, etc. Every year in December, your off season, I’d visit you in Santa Cruz, and we’d walk Lilian’s dog or look at all the biology bibles you’d collected and were studiously pouring over. You’d tell me about your recent exploits and I’d feel reassured knowing that you were out there, knowing that nature and wild animals were better off because of you. Your love of indigenous kids in Nicaragua, your quote in the high school yearbook of Eugene Debs (“there is no way to peace, peace is the way”) – you were as much an anarchist as I, as progressive and iconoclastic. I was shocked and stunned at your sudden death. Like a bird, you took to the wing. I am sad that we couldn’t help you, that you didn’t reach out. Maybe that wasn’t your way. I feel a great loneliness, a hole in my heart, knowing your are gone. Thank you for all that you have done for the earth, for animals, for humanity. I hope you come back and get to do more. Please stay in my heart and remind me of what is beautiful in the world. Stay wild Chris – that is your birthright.  I love you.

I spent Thanksgiving with my mom and stepdad in Santa Monica, a tradition in my stepdad’s family, then 5 days in Palm Springs at their time share Palm Springs was beautiful. I drove back for Chris’s memorial. The night before the memorial, I dreamt that Chris and I were in a small dinghy and a huge wave was about to wash over us with certain death.  I had a strange sense of calm knowing I would die with Chris.  I wrote the following words that I spoke at his memorial: I ran into you rock scrambling in the Granite Mountains. We were up there in our natural history class, you birds and I mammals. I’d gotten in trouble for this before when Ken Norris got angry at me for wandering off at Honey Lake, the day I found a beautiful chert arrowhead that I left in place because it didn’t seem right to take it. And there you were, like a vision, spry and agile, springing about rocky crevices. A kindred spirit! Never had I seen someone wandering alone in a landscape like I did. I wondered at your character, whether you were like me. And yes, you were. Years later, while working at a respectable job as a tech writer at Apple, you called me and offered me a position on a boat as a biologist. What did I tell you then? That I couldn’t leave a job I hated, felt trapped by and thought I would die in? I think about that naturalist position still, wondering how different my life might be if I’d taken it. You took the road I did not – but still, after Apple, I found myself hiking 1000 miles one summer on the Pacific Crest Trail alone, admiring sunsets, out in nature. That’s all we wanted – to be close to the land, to wild ones, where we all belong. So few have kept their wild nature – I think you are one of only 2 people I know that really lived the way that I think we are all meant to. And now you are gone, somewhere, or perhaps nowhere, and I dream of you, me, together in a tiny boat, a 50 foot wave about to engulf us, and I feel a strange sense of peace, knowing that I am with you. At least for a few more moments.


4 responses to “My friend Chris

  1. I seem to remember that you were friendly with Jennifer Durham (formerly Gates). I see on Facebook that she is traveling in California. Are you in touch with her?



  2. I knew Chris back in Tucson in the 90s. I enjoyed hiking with him more than anyone else because he knew so much and would share his knowledge with such enthusiasm.

    I just learned about his death today when talking to someone from Santa Cruz. I am saddened by what the world lost, but more than that, I am saddened by what he lost.


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